Weekly Torah Portion – Embodying Empathy

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Parshat Emor: Leviticus 21:1-24:23; Ezekiel 44:15-31.

Our actions in the world can either bring sanctity (kiddush HaShem) or desecration (chillul HaShem) to God’s name.

In portion Emor, the Torah is clear that how we act in the world has a direct effect on the level of holiness present in each of our relationships. In Leviticus 22:28 we are encouraged to examine and evaluate our behavior in relation to one another: “No animal from the herd or the flock can be slaughtered for food on the same day with its young.”

The biblical commentator Maimonides asserts that the essence of this commandment is to show that in Judaism there is no distinction between the suffering of the person and that of an animal. As such, this mitzvah makes a foundational statement that empathy must be cultivated in the heart of every Jew.

Empathy is the action of being aware, being sensitive to and vicariously understanding/experiencing the thoughts/feelings of another while sensing their deepest, inner emotions. Empathy is being able to put ourselves in another person’s shoes. It emerges in a situation where “I and you” becomes “I am you” or “I might be you.”

True empathy exists when we feel sad because the people around us feel sad; when we are upset to see someone being treated disrespectfully; when we are “in tune” with other people’s moods; when we look at every side of a disagreement before we make a decision; when we get a strong urge to help after coming across someone who is upset; when we see someone being taken advantage of and feel protective of them; when we truly enjoy making other people feel better.

The Midrash tells of Rabbi Shmuel of Lubavitch who often spent hours receiving visitors in private. During this time, he would perspire profusely and on occasion even excused himself in the middle of an interview to change his garments. When asked for the reason he said, “When I receive a visitor, I am wearing my own garments. But to understand his comments from his perspective I must remove my garments and don his. At this point, I must consider the problem from my own perspective; and, for that, I must put on my own garments again. Having developed a suitable response, I must dress my advice in words suitable to my visitor’s ears and for that I must once again put on his garments. Knowing this, are you surprised that I perspire?” Such is authentic empathy!

Empathy may well be the most valuable resource we have for resolving conflict and making room for forgiveness, acceptance and unconditional love. When we allow ourselves to see things from the other person’s point of view we create the opportunity for profound validation and healing. We do this when we listen non-judgmentally with our ears and eyes, our heart and soul.

Empathy is both demanding and overwhelming at times, but it is certainly the gift that keeps on giving!

Rabbi Joseph Krakoff
Rabbi Joseph Krakoff

Rabbi Joseph H. Krakoff is the senior director of the Jewish Hospice and Chaplaincy Network.

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